Indonesia: Govt backtracks on unrealistic peatland restoration

Hans Nicholas Jong, The Jakarta Post 8 Dec 15;

Provided with a limited allocation from the state budget, the government may only have the capacity to restore less than 5 percent of the total peatland area burned this year, allegedly by both small and large holders of plantation concessions.

The Environment and Forestry Ministry has estimated that this year’s forest fires, the worst since 1998, has destroyed around 2.6 million hectares of land, with 53 percent of it located in peatland areas. If disturbed, peatland can become a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have to be realistic in proposing something. If we are provided with more funds, we could restore more than 5 percent of the destroyed peatlands,” the ministry’s environmental pollution and damage control director general, Karliansyah, told The Jakarta Post.

Last month, Vice President Jusuf Kalla confirmed a plan to restore at least 2 million hectares of peatlands destroyed by decades of unscrupulous practices by small and big concession holders. The restoration costs are estimated to top Rp 50 trillion (US$3.6 billion) over five years.

However, Karliansyah said that restoring a mere 5 percent of burned peatlands would cost taxpayers up to Rp 30 trillion and may take five years to complete, highlighting the astronomical cost and impact of forest fires to the environment.

“So we’ve calculated the cost to block canals and restore the vegetation. We’ve also calculated the cost to hire staff members to manage the water gates to the canals, as well as the cost to increase people’s awareness of forest fires,” he said.

Karliansyah added that the government has excluded concessions owned by big holders from the 5 percent restoration program.

“The 5 percent is located in areas managed by smallholders, not companies,” he said.

Firms whose areas have been burned by the recent fires will have to bear the responsibility to restore their lands using their own money, according to Karliansyah.

“Even though the regulation states that the burned lands could be taken over by the state, the responsibility [to restore the lands] is still with the companies,” he said.

Between January and October, forest fires allegedly triggered by the clearing of lands for oil palm and pulp plantations had killed a dozen people in Sumatra and Kalimantan and hospitalized thousands. Smoky haze from the fires had also chocked people in Singapore, Malaysia and some part of Thailand and the Philippines.

The ministry’s director general for law enforcement, Rasio Ridho Sani, said that so far the government had not forced companies whose areas were impacted by the forest fires to restore their lands.

“We have not yet ordered them to restore the land, but we are trying to do that through civil lawsuits. There’s already one company, PT Kalista Alam, which should serve as a precedent,” he said.

Rasio was referring to the recent landmark decision by the Supreme Court, concerning the case of a forest fire in Aceh, in which Kalista was directly liable for the burning of 1,000 hectares of the Tripa forest.

The forest lies within Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem, the only place on earth where tigers, elephants, rhinoceros and orangutans can be found living together in the wild.

The court ordered the company to pay Rp 114.3 billion in compensation and Rp 251.7 billion to restore the affected areas of forest.

In the future, Rasio said that the government might not have to wait to file a civil lawsuit in order to force a company to restore its burned land as it can deploy administrative sanctions to do so.

Rasio said that firms might be forced to restore their lands using their own money as this was already stipulated in the environment law.

The regulations would be strengthened further with a government regulation on peatland restoration currently being drafted by the government.

Riau dissolves haze task force
The Jakarta Post 8 Dec 15;

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) officially dissolved on Monday a government-sanctioned task force tasked with putting out forest and peatland fires in Riau, ending months of work to reduce the haze crisis in one of the country’s worst affected provinces.

Speaking at a ceremony, BNPB chief Willem Rampangilei expressed his appreciation to the task force for their all-out efforts to mitigate the fire and haze disasters. “The central government has already allocated Rp 500 billion (US$37 million) to deal with the land and forest fires in Riau alone, not to mention material damages from the fires. The BNPB has not even completed calculating the damages until now,” said Willem.

The task force, according to Willem, would be transformed into the Flood and Landslide Emergency Task Force to anticipate disasters triggered by the upcoming rainy season.

South Sumatra residents hope elections will bring end to yearly forest fires
Ogan Ilir was one of the areas hit hardest by the fires, with a total of almost 800,000 hectares of land burnt in the province. These elections will see close to 300,000 eligible voters striving for change.
Saifulbahri Ismail Channel NewsAsia 8 Dec 15;

SOUTH SUMATRA, Indonesia: Residents of Ogan Ilir in South Sumatra will on Wednesday (Dec 9) vote in local elections for a new local leader.

Close to 300,000 eligible voters in the city were badly affected by the thick haze from Indonesia’s massive forest fires this year. Ogan Ilir was one of the areas hit hardest by the fires, with a total of almost 800,000 hectares of land burnt in the province.

Many of the city’s residents suffered respiratory illnesses as a result of breathing acrid smoke from forest fires. They remain concerned about their long term health and hope this is an issue that a local leader will address.

“What they (the local leaders) should do is to act fast, not to spend too much time planning,” said Muhammad Sobri, Ogan Ilir resident.

Another Ogan Ilir resident, Nurfatina, said that she was “definitely disappointed with the government, because this has been going on for more than 10 years, and they only put out the fires but not prevent it.”

Directly addressing the need for prevention rather than reaction is Helmy Yahya, one of the candidates running in the Ogan Ilir election.

The former quiz, and reality show TV presenter says he wants to work with the central government, and create a new fund, to incentivise people not to burn the land during the four-month dry season.

“We have calculated almost 3,000 households, 3,000 families (burnt their land during haze season),” said Helmy Yahya, candidate for Ogan Ilir.

“(The plan is that) we give them one million rupiah a month, (then) multiply this by four months (over the haze season). It’s only four million times 3,000 ... something like 12 billion rupiah. That’s much cheaper compared to the helicopter you have to hire, or the specially-equipped airplane (to put out the fires). It’s very, very costly.”

Political analysts believe the forest fires and haze will be an issue with the voters.

“They think that the local government is not active enough, or have not done enough to protect them. Particularly people who have small children, and elderly people who got sick,” said Paul Rowland, technical advisor of the Reformasi Weekly Review.

“But, it’s also important to understand the role of local government is extremely important in this issue."

Come Dec 8, residents will be casting their votes at the ballot boxes for one that can bring change, and a better future to their region.

- CNA/yt